Hughes v Pritchard – A Notable Case
The High Court has recently handed down judgment in the case of Hughes v Pritchard and others  EWHC 1580 (Ch) which involved issues relating to the validity of a Will due to mental incapacity and the legal principal of Proprietary Estoppel.
This case involved the family of the late Evan Hughes, who died in March 2017 aged 84. The family disputed the validity of the third, final Will of the late Mr Hughes which was executed by him on the 7th July 2016. Evan had three children one of whom, namely Elfed tragically died in 2015, leaving a widow and three sons.
One of the provisions of Evan’s 2016 Will was to leave to his surviving son, Gareth, 58 acres of his farmland. The remainder of his farmland was then left to Elfed’s widow for her lifetime, and then to his three sons. The terms of the Will was challenged by Elfed’s widow and family who claimed that the whole of the farmland should be left to Elfed’s estate, and that his father’s 2016 Will is invalid on grounds of lack of capacity, a lack of knowledge and approval and undue influence by Gareth on his Father.
Previous Wills executed by Evan had left the whole of his farmland to his son, Elfed. It was claimed by Elfed’s widow and family that the 58 acres of farmland left to Gareth in the 2016 will should be part of Elfed’s estate on the basis that it had always been promised to Elfed over the years, and that in previous Wills, Evan had always recorded that the whole of the land would be left to Elfed. Elfed being fully aware of his father’s wishes, had always been led to believe that he would be left the whole of the farmland, and in reliance upon that promise, had worked very long hours on the farm on the understanding that it would eventually be his, as promised by his father.
During the Trial, evidence was heard that on the 11th March 2016, Evan instructed a firm of Solicitors to prepare a new Will. In the case of an elderly or seriously ill person who wishes to make a new Will, the expectation is that the instructing solicitor should seek the opinion of a medical expert regarding that person’s capacity to make a Will in accordance with what is described as the ‘Golden Rule’ laid down in a previous caselaw. Capacity assessment were undertaken by Evan’s GP. At that time, no concerns regarding Evan’s mental capacity were raised, and the Will was executed on the 7th July 2016.
At trial and after considering the evidence, the Court took a different view and having heard evidence from the Solicitor, GP and Joint Consultant Psychiatrist held that on the balance of probabilities, that Evan probably did not have capacity by the 7th July 2016 and therefore concluded that the 2016 Will is invalid, on grounds of lack of wilful capacity. In making its decision, the court took into consideration the oral evidence given by the GP at the trial that he had not appreciated that the changes which were to be incorporate in Evan’s new Will were significantly different to the terms of his previous Will, and had the he realised this, he would have questioned Evan further before finalising his assessment and may have come to a different view on capacity back in 2016. Furthermore, as he was the GP of several family members, had he been aware of this significant change in the term of Evan’s Will, he probably would not have carried out the assessment at all and passed it to an independent medical expert.
The Court then went on to consider the claim for Proprietary Estoppel. Proprietary Estoppel is a legal remedy which can be claimed when someone is given a clear assurance by a third party that they will acquire a right over property, they reasonably rely on the assurance, and they act substantially to their detriment on the strength of the assurance. In such circumstances, the Court would take the view that it would be unconscionable to go back on the assurance. If you have been promised land or property from a person that has died but this promise hasn’t been reflected in their Will, it may be possible for you to make a claim using a legal principle called ‘Proprietary Estoppel’. Previous caselaw has determined that if parties have made a deal, which one party has relied upon, then in the absence of countervailing factors, it would be unethical or unreasonable for the other party not keeping his side of the deal.
In order to bring a successful Proprietary Estoppel claim, three essential elements must be present:
- Assurance – There must have been a representation or assurance which created an expectation on the part of the Claimant that they were or would become entitled to a right or interest in the Defendant’s land.
- Reliance – The Claimant must be able to demonstrate reliance on that promise.
- Detriment – The Claimant must be able to demonstrate that they acted to their detriment.
In this case the Court heard evidence to the effect that there was a clear understanding that Elfed would inherit the whole of the farmland from his Father, and that Elfed had clearly understood that he would own the whole of the land someday and this was clearly represented to him by his Father over many years. The Court accepted that Elfed had acted on this promise and had suffered financial harm as a result, which included the work undertaken by him in running the farm and the substantial expenses incurred paid over many years, which he had done so willingly as he as believed that the farmland would be his after his Father’s days. In addition, Elfed suffered non-financial harm in that he worked very long hours with the absence of holidays, and in doing so sacrificed of his family life.
The court held that Elfed had indeed acted on the promise made to him over the years by his Father and that he had acted to his detriment and as such Proprietary Estoppel had been established in this instance, and therefore even if the disputed Will had been valid, the farmland would nevertheless be subject to a Proprietary Estoppel claim and should be transferred outright to Elfed’s estate.
When taking instructions from an elderly client for the preparation of a Will, Solicitors must consider whether the client has mental capacity to provide those instructions and thereafter execute a new Will, and there is a duty upon them not only to make their own assessment through discussions with the client, but also to obtain specialist medical advice. It should be noted however that in light of this particular case, all professionals involved should obtain a clear understanding of the client’s instructions and the reason behind such instructions as part of their assessment and that in raising questions of the client, the professionals are not prying into the client’s private affairs but carrying out their duty in order to ensure that that the Will cannot be invalidated at a later date.